Are There Conditions Under Which Directors Should Consider Hiring a CEO Fired Elsewhere for Inappropriate Behavior?

Executives fired fairly or unfairly over worker violence and harassment charges are about to seek new jobs. James Heskett asks the difficult but unavoidable question: Are there conditions under which boards should consider hiring them?
by James Heskett

My column posted last week, “Under What Conditions Would You Hire a CEO ‘Displaced’ by #MeToo?,” raised much debate but also angry responses regarding the appropriateness of certain terms and labels. These prompted my editor and I for the first time in 18 years and 217 monthly columns to pull the piece temporarily and review the criticism. The result is this revised post, which reflects what we heard.

The article elicited forcefully written letters of complaint to my editor, and several other rebukes posted on comments to the story. Specifically, objections were raised to the use of “#MeToo-related accusations” without explaining #MeToo and what it means—no small task in a short piece such as this. The overall thread was that the references trivialized what victims experienced. Also, there were objections to the use of “displaced” and “refugees” to describe the growing ranks of those senior executives who have lost their jobs for actual or alleged inappropriate workplace behavior. My attention was called to the sensitivity of these terms because of what is going on in Syria, Myanmar, and other places in the world. In the article itself, I described labels I had seen elsewhere (including “the accused” and even “bad men”) in my struggle to come up with better descriptors. They were constructive and useful criticisms.

It became apparent that these debates were likely to obscure any discussion of the issue at hand. I asked myself how I would handle this if it were a real (as opposed to the simulated experience we try to create here) MBA classroom at HBS in which students and the instructor alike teach and learn. The answer: Take time out to agree on labels and definitions.

So we decided to pull and revise the piece, asking (as I do now): How do you think we should refer to executives fired for inappropriate workplace behavior?

Now let’s revisit the original issue. The attempted re-entry into the work world by the wave of recently fired senior executives with CEO potential is likely to begin this summer, so the issue takes on added timeliness. And let’s clarify that we are not talking about executives who are known to have committed serious assaults or other potential criminal acts. No board that I am personally aware of would consider hiring those people.

The growing body of senior executives who’ve lost their jobs due to inappropriate workplace behavior contains men with a wide variety of attitudes and capabilities. Some lost their jobs for what they did; others lost their jobs for what they didn’t do. What’s to be done with senior executives such as these?

It’s the duty of boards reviewing their CVs to perform proper due diligence. They will also be dealing with previous employers who are engaged in what has come to be called “passing the trash,” providing recommendations for former executives that are truthful only as far as they go, leaving out critical information about why the candidate is on the market.

Will organizations be tempted to hire someone, perhaps a highly experienced, high-profile executive, who might not otherwise be available or interested in the job? On the other hand, if the person is to be hired, what are the costs in terms of damage to an organization’s reputation and culture, manifested by objections and complaints by current employees?

Will CEO candidates who lost their jobs for what they didn’t do be considered differently than those who are available because of what they did? What else, if anything, should be done to evaluate someone who has lost his job under such conditions? And what message, if any, should the board send to executives throughout the organization confronted with “opportunities” to hire what might be called “tainted talent”?

As a director, are there conditions under which you would hire a CEO candidate fired elsewhere for inappropriate workplace behavior? What do you think?

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